India’s Undersea Nuclear Deterrent Poses Proliferation Challenges

India’s Undersea Nuclear Deterrent Poses Proliferation Challenges

Despite India’s graduation from outlier to tepidly accepted member of the global nuclear order, one area of New Delhi’s nuclear activities continues to raise alarm: its undersea nuclear deterrent. India unveiled its first nuclear submarine, the INS Arihant, in July 2009. Though the ship was largely indigenous, Russia helped in designing the miniaturized nuclear reactor. Just last month, the nuclear reactor in INS Arihant went critical, clearing the way for its final operational trials in the Bay of Bengal. India has designs to produce four to five nuclear submarines by the end of this decade. When integrated with nuclear-tipped sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), these submarines will provide India with an underwater nuclear deterrent capability.

This technical development has posed two new challenges to the nuclear nonproliferation regime. First, the highly enriched uranium (HEU) used in naval nuclear propulsion for India’s nuclear submarines could be diverted for weapons purposes. India has a dedicated enrichment facility for its naval nuclear program at Rattehali, and some of the uranium from this facility was used for India’s 1998 nuclear weapons tests. According to Princeton nuclear scientist and scholar M.V. Ramana, Rattehali has the capacity to produce 22 kilograms of 90 percent enriched uranium annually, or the equivalent of 40-70 kilograms of 45 percent enriched uranium. However, new analysis reveals (.pdf) that qualitative changes in India’s enrichment technology may have increased this capacity to 48 kilograms of 90 percent enriched uranium annually. This capacity is destined to grow as India prepares to launch more nuclear submarines in the future.

Some of the inherent restrictions on India’s enrichment program were also removed by the India-U.S. nuclear deal (.pdf). First, the deal allowed India to import uranium from abroad for its civilian energy requirements, thereby allowing India to utilize domestic uranium for strategic purposes, including enrichment for naval nuclear reactors. Second, the deal also opened the international nuclear market for India, which may make it easier for India to improve the sophistication of its enrichment technology. The safeguards agreement India signed with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) does not apply to India’s uranium enrichment program. The India-U.S. nuclear deal therefore not only augmented India’s uranium enrichment capability, it also represented a lost opportunity to impose safeguards on India’s HEU cycle, leaving a proliferation concern unaddressed.

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